A night out to remember
On a recent Saturday evening, four men entered the restaurant where I was eating with friends and clubbed a man almost to death.
It happened at the Tokyo Diner, in London’s Chinatown. The food is tasty and cheap, and the restaurant is close to Leicester Square, where we had gone to see a film. The streets were heaving with cheerful crowds; the Soho bomber had been locked up, and the district which had recently been terrorised seemed busier than ever.
Our own mood was less upbeat. One Day in September, a feature-length documentary about the Munich Olympics, had shown in Oscar-winning detail the capacity of one group (Palestinian terrorists) to capture and then murder another group (11 Israeli athletes). Most depressing was the evidence of procrastination and bungling by the German authorities, and the relish with which events were observed by a world hungry for sporting action.
With the restaurant full, our food took a while to appear, but eventually my soup arrived – a vast bowl filled with noodles. Just as I was snapping apart the wooden chopsticks, one of my companions, Mark, noticed a commotion in the street.
I turned to stare through the window but immediately turned back in response to high-pitched screams from inside the restaurant.
The Tokyo Diner is not a big restaurant. The ground floor accommodates about 30 people, maybe fewer. Tables stand close together, and diners perch on tiny stools.
In this confined space, it is impossible to ignore the sudden and noisy appearance of men waving sticks the size of baseball bats. Bowls and glasses flew from the tables nearest the door, and diners scattered.
For several minutes, I lost all ability to think rationally. To say I thought the attack was directed at the restaurant itself – perhaps in revenge for poor service on some earlier visit – crystallises an idea conceived more vaguely at the time.
Similarly, it would be wrong to say I believed the assailants were members of a triad gang, part of the Chinese criminal network, but something like that was in my mind because – though I don’t remember their faces clearly – I recognised them as Chinese.
Gradually it became apparent that the men were not deliberately smashing up the restaurant but beating a man who lay curled up in a corner. All four flayed furiously at him, their clubs swooshing through the room like helicopter rotors.
Trapped behind the cash-desk, I had no way to escape. My friends, Mark and Alice, were additionally obstructed by our table. I became aware that we all stood pinned against the windows, flattening ourselves against the glass rather like characters in a cartoon.
Everybody was shouting. For reasons I can’t fully understand, I’m embarrassed to recollect I yelled: “Stop it!”
From the movies – and school playgrounds – it is possible to acquire a sense that fights have a certain duration. It takes only so long to beat someone up, you might think – and no longer.
But the men with the clubs did not share that sense. Tireless, they went on and on and on. I heard myself shout: “They’re going to kill him!”
I felt bad for the helpless victim, but possibly even worse for myself: I really didn’t think I could watch this.
Suddenly, I found that the nearest of the four men was staring in my direction. Was I next? Or was he just peering past me – on the lookout for more fighters, or the police?
I didn’t wait to find out. I lifted our table by its end and flipped it on to one side. In doing so, I think I intended to form a protective barrier – and inadvertently I opened a gap for Mark and Alice to get past.
Less happily, I tipped hot soup over the leg of the closest assailant. I ran for the door.
Outside, I waited for my friends: Alice first, Mark close behind. We pushed through the gawping crowd and found a place to stand outside a pub across the road. Adrenalin pumped through me, and Mark too was shaking. Alice was in tears. Drinkers on the pavement offered cigarettes, and woozy sympathy.
Inside the restaurant, the beating continued for a while, but eventually the men dropped their weapons and sauntered off, disappearing into the crowd. They were followed outside by a handful of diners gagging from the sight of all the blood.
Soon afterwards, the police arrived. Some went inside, helping the battered victim to a seat – where he slumped as they pressed napkins to his wounds. Others remained outside, taking statements from the crowd.
I’m not proud to say this, but if this really was a battle between triad gangs I might have preferred not to get involved. But Mark had left his wallet inside the restaurant, and I’d abandoned my personal organiser. It wouldn’t take long for detectives to establish who had been eating noodle soup when the attackers ran inside.
With little enthusiasm, we stepped forward and told them what we had seen.